FRIEND OF MIKE’S : Memo to Would-Be Screenwriters: Get to Know Crichton
Michael Backes is a computer whiz--and a sexually harassed man. He’s a real person and a fictional character in not one but two Michael Crichton novels. He’s also a screenwriter on his own and as a collaborator with Crichton.
It has not gone unnoticed that Backes’ name has popped up with some frequency these past few months, demonstrating that an individual’s expertise can be appreciated in Hollywood in unexpected ways.
Little did Backes know when Crichton asked him to fact-check a draft copy of the novel “Jurassic Park” prior to publication that the author would then name the chief computer programmer character in the final version of the book Mike Backes.
Backes was flattered.
Then, when “Jurassic Park” was to begin filming, the film’s producer, Amblin Entertainment, searched for someone to develop the animated computer graphics used in the movie’s control-room scenes where the good guys try to stem the chaos that occurs when the electricity goes down and the dinosaurs run wild.
Why not Michael Backes, someone suggested?
Backes was known to Industrial Light & Magic, one of several special-effects specialists hired on the $70-million production, as an expert in programming graphics on Apple’s Macintosh computers so that the lines on the video screen don’t break up when captured on film. He travels the globe as consultant to the Silicon Valley company.
Backes not only got Apple and Silicon Graphics to loan the production company $2-million worth of computers along with the software, he endeared himself to Steven Spielberg and the crew by also securing the loan of a flight-simulator game featuring Sidewinder missiles with which the director and the rest of the crew entertained themselves between set-ups. (Spielberg later bought one for himself--at a cost of $40,000.) In the film’s final credits, Backes is listed as display graphics supervisor.
He laughs about his good fortune: “I guess I’m the first fictional character to ever get the same job on a movie.”
As it happened, Backes and Crichton met through their wives years before when director Martha Coolidge (Backes’ spouse) cast Ann-Marie Martin (Crichton’s spouse) as the lead in the pilot of the television series “Sledgehammer.” The husbands became friends for their mutual interest in Macs and the anticipation of becoming new fathers at about the same time. Backes had done some technical consulting work on “Real Genius,” but became known more for the Mac storyboarding computer program he developed for “The Abyss” and “The Fly II.”
At “Jurassic Park’s” publication, Backes said he started getting Mac e-mail inquiries from all over the world asking if he knew Crichton or whether his name had been linked by coincidence. Among those sending missives from England was “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams.
As Backes figures it, better that he be linked to the computer programmer character than to the book’s villain, project supervisor Dennis Nedry (as in nerdy ).
Crichton’s nod to Backes beyond “Jurassic Park” was extended to a writing collaboration adapting the novelist’s “Rising Sun” to the screen, which turned out to be a less-than-pleasant experience when the duo’s script was largely rewritten by the movie’s director, Philip Kaufman. (The three share screen credit, however, on the 20th Century Fox Production, which opens Friday.)
Now, Crichton is polishing the final draft of his latest novel on sexual harassment in the workplace, “Disclosure.” The movie rights were sold for $2.5 million--a record--to Warner Bros. a month ago.
This time, it’s a thriller set in a Seattle computer company. Backes’ name shows up as a minor character who has been sexually harassed. The book’s main character is a male who also has been sexually harassed. When he rejects the advances of a former girlfriend, now his boss, she then accuses him of sexually harassing her. A trial ensues.
Meanwhile, Backes is back at his computer finishing a third draft of his adaptation of “The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester and Howard Chaykin for New Constantin Films.
“Maybe I can make a career of this,” he said.